The Long and the Short View

Boom Times for the End of the World celebrates Scott Timberg’s legacy.

scott timberg, boom times for the end of the world, nonfiction, book review
Eric Almendral

In the introduction to Piecework, his 1996 collection of columns and reportage, the late Pete Hamill acknowledged the challenges faced by any journalist whose writing is gathered for a book. “It is the nature of such work,” he wrote, “that it is produced in a rush; the deadlines usually force the newspaper writer to publish a first draft because there is no time for a second or a third.” And yet, there is (or can be) much that’s illuminating in such a volume—because of its inherent immediacy. The in-the-moment quality of the writing and the thinking can function like a snapshot or, better yet, a sketch, a series of impressions, a set of field notes written in real time.

I’ve been thinking about this, the long and the short view, while reading Boom Times for the End of the World, a posthumous collection of 26 pieces by the journalist Scott Timberg, who was a staff writer at both the now-defunct alt-weekly New Times L.A. and the Los Angeles Times (where much of this work initially appeared); he took his own life at the age of 50 on December 10, 2019. Scott was a friend and a colleague. I still feel the shock of his death. For that reason, I’m going to do away with journalistic convention and refer to him here by his first name. I don’t know how to do it any other way.

Like Hamill, Scott was a polymath. He could write knowledgeably, and passionately, about a variety of topics: from literature to rock music, from popular culture to film to visual art. For another journalist, that might have been a stretch. For Scott, it was all part of the job. Just look at the pieces in Boom Times: an early assessment of Spike Jonze, published at the exact moment the director moved from creating music videos to making features; a cogent reflection on Glenn Gould; a moving meditation (reminiscent, in its way, of Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That”) recording “that bittersweet feeling, halfway between queasy and liberating,” when he and his family decided to leave his beloved Los Angeles for Athens, Georgia.

The cause of that departure (and subsequent return to Southern California) has been documented, not least in Scott’s 2015 book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. There, he used his own professional displacement—he’d been laid off by the Times seven years earlier—to explore a more wide-ranging and pervasive cultural collapse. “In 2008,” he notes in “Down We Go Together,” the introduction to Culture Crash, reprinted here as a stand-alone essay, “a risk-taking real estate mogul had bought the newspaper I wrote for. In the months immediately before and after he drove the company into bankruptcy, the paper laid off hundreds of us—more than a third of its staff.” For Scott, the experience was both personal and universal; as he recognized, similar disruptions were roiling other fields as well. “Architects I knew watched their practices implode,” he writes. “Some of my favorite bookstores sold off their stock in a hurry as they closed their doors.” The cause was, in part, the Great Recession, but even more, a broader set of social changes: “a combination of market forces, new technologies, and clueless corporate overlords.”

The arc of Scott’s life (his narrative, if you will) makes it tempting to frame him as a victim: a representative figure of a kind. “For many of us,” writer and critic Ted Gioia notes in his introduction to Boom Times, “Scott’s death revealed uncanny and disturbing connections with his professional life over the last decade, when he emerged as our leading chronicler and champion of creative professionals who had been squeezed and displaced.” Yet if there’s a case to be made that, as Gioia asserts, “Scott would still be alive if the Times hadn’t let him go,” I also want to say that it’s too simple—or, at least, fails to get at what it felt like to spend time with Scott. Even toward the end, he was provocative and funny, sharply opinionated in his points of view. The last time I saw him, in downtown Los Angeles in 2019, he was in high spirits, laughing, discussing, interested and curious and energized.

What I mean is that Scott was—and I think this is important to recognize—a survivor, regardless of his choice to end his life. The evidence is everywhere in Boom Times. “If the marketplace is left entirely unfettered,” he insists in “Highbrow. Lowbrow. No Brow. Now What?,” “we’ll lose a lot of what we consider valuable—not just J.S. Bach and John Coltrane, but shows such as Deadwood and non-chain bookstores.” It’s a cultural, as opposed to an economic, lament. For Scott, after all, culture was everything; it was the food he ate and the air he breathed. He was so deeply committed to journalism and the arts that he literally could not imagine doing anything else. I don’t want to remember Scott as a martyr; that doesn’t do justice to his considerable complexity. I don’t want to remember him as sad or broken; that doesn’t do justice to his resiliency. Instead, I choose to remember him as a human, as a journalist and an artist in his own right.

I can recall reading these pieces as they were published. I can recall his capacious curiosity. I can recall the day we met for the first time, 20-odd years ago, over lunch at a sushi joint on the Westside, shortly after he moved to Los Angeles from the East. As a newcomer to Southern California, Scott did not make the mistake so many transplants do, which is to define or explain away the place on their own terms rather than experience it for what it is. No, he was here to listen, to ask and challenge. Talking with him was a workout, in the best and most engaging ways.

Now, he is no longer with us, although the work remains: not only Culture Crash but also his 2003 book, The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles, an anthology coedited with Dana Gioia (Ted’s brother and a former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts), as well as the writing here. It is neither monument nor edifice. Rather, these 26 pieces are alive in the fullest sense, immediate and deeply felt. “The ability of art,” Scott writes, “to move people decades and centuries after the death of the artist is one of culture’s strangest mysteries.” This, too, is something I kept pondering, as I read Boom Times for the End of the World.•

Heyday Books


Heyday Books

David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.
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